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>Motivation

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The key to any story is the motivation of the characters. However, something that happened recently in Britain reminded me that people are not rational and may have quite unreal, self defeating and contradictory motivations.

The Home Secratary, under the prodding of our Prime Minister, Bonkers Brown, just fired the Chairman of the Government Scientific Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs. His crime was to publish a scientific paper giving the degree of harm of various recreational drugs.

The list in order of harm based on actual evidence is: Heroin, Cocaine, Barbiturates, Methadone, ALCOHOL, Ketamine, Benzadrine, Amphetimine, TOBACCO, Buprenophrine, Cannabis, Solvents, 4-MTA, Methylphenadate, Anabolicsteroids, GBH, Ecstasy (and similar), Alky Nitrates & Kat.

Based on this, Professor Nutt advised that Cannabis and Ecstasy should be downgraded for legal purposes. That is the purpose of his Committee, to give the Government scientific advise – which they gave for free unpaid. Ecstasy is classed as a Grade A illegal drug with Heroin and Cocaine, and Cannabis a Class B. Alcohol, meanwhie, is being heavily pushed by the Government who have scrapped most of our alcohol control laws and allowed 24 hour drinking, massive sales of cheap booze in supermarkets etc. Alcopops, aimed at young people, is cheaper than mineral water to buy. Of course, the Government makes a great deal of money out of taxing nicotine and alcohol.

Professor Nutt, incidentally has a medical degree from Cambridge and has just been poached by Imperial friom Bristol to be Director of their Neuropsychopharmacology Department where he will be developing Positron Emission Topography scanner techniques to track drug effects on the brain.

But Bonkers has decreed that Cannabis is lethal so what does Professor Nutt know? What finally enraged Bonkers was Nutt pointing out that ten times as many people die from recreational horse riding as recreational ecstasy.

Nutt reports the following conversation with his political masters:

MP: ‘You can’t compare harms from a legal activity
with an illegal one.’
Professor Nutt: ‘Why not?’
MP: ‘Because one’s illegal.’
Professor Nutt: ‘Why is it illegal?’
MP: ‘Because it’s harmful.’
Professor Nutt: ‘Don’t we need to compare harms to
determine if it should be illegal?’
MP: ‘You can’t compare harms from a legal activity
with an illegal one.’
repeats …

I have also given evidence to politicians and can confirm their inability to think rationally.

So put yourself in Gordon Brown’ motivational position. What motivations would you give such a character. He schemed and plotted to take the PMship from Blair and now he has it the resuls have been a disaster but he has pleaded with his party not to sack him. What do think his motivation might be? I know we call him Bonkers but he is not actually mad, in the clinical sense.

Power: he is near powerless.
Status: he is a national joke.
Respect: see earlier comment.
Ambition to achieve a goal: he has shown no sign of having any ideas.

How would you bring Brown to life as a protagonist for a reader? What would you make his motivations and how would he rationalise his desire to cling to office until next year’s electoral disaster? How would you make the irrational seem rational?

John

The photo is taken at Greenwich (promounced gren-itch) with the financial centre of London, the largest in the world, across the Thames in the distance. Greenwich is the old Royal Observatory and I am standing on the zero line.

>Primordial Soup

>Just as Rowena talked about the different ways that we writers stay inspired, there are no doubt myriad ways in which we all first approached the Muse.

What was the writer’s ‘Primordial Soup’? Were you drawn by the prose itself? Did it sing in your head? Did sentences appear before you written in fiery letters?

Or was it a sense of character, building up inside you until you just had to let those critters free on the page? Or perhaps it was emotional – something from your past that drove you to explore a theme that strongly resonated with you. Perhaps you recreate the same emotional landscapes that haunted your childhood, and your protagonist is an aspect of you, saving you over and over again (guilty as charged).

Or was it the ideas themselves? Those Wow concepts that electrified your brain. ‘Oh, my God! What if . .. ?’ And this was so compelling that it drove you to weave an entire world around it, just so you could communicate it? My SF definitely comes into this category (not that I’ve written much lately).

Of course wherever we start, as writers we have to create all the elements of a story landscape – character, setting, conflict. And answer all those questions of Rowena’s – what is the story about? What does the character want? What does the character have to overcome to get there (or try to)? We need a plot – a series of events that define the story and show the character’s journey.

But where did you start? What was the first form of that passion that drove you to the page?

>The Fantasy Economy – What do you mean lifestyle matters?

>And no, I don’t mean the one politicians of all kinds are always making noises about.

What I’m talking about here is something that just about everyone gets wrong – usually because most of us are so used to the way things have worked since the Industrial Revolution that it’s invisible. The changes the Industrial Revolution kicked into overdrive had already been happening, but in the space of fifty to a hundred years they went from upper class only to ubiquitous, and rearranged European society in the process. The other thing about the Industrial Revolution is that most of the changes were economic. The industry side was the means, not the end.

I’m going to start by reduction: it’s easier to see the differences this way. Besides, we’ve all got a more or less reasonable idea of how “the economy” works nowadays. We know you earn money at a job or selling stuff and spend it on the things you need and want, hopefully in that approximate order.

The screamingly obvious first. Say goodbye to electricity, piped gas, and the car. For light, you’re using either candles (expensive) or some form of oil/fat/grease light. More often than not, you’re going to bed when it gets dark and getting up when it’s light. Anything happening at night probably involves a full or at least three-quarter moon because that way there’s a decent amount of light out. Cooking means a fire, which you’ve got to watch constantly and makes things miserable in summer. No cars means everything perishable is coming from close by, if you didn’t grow it yourself. You’re not going anywhere that’s not in walking distance unless you can afford and have space for horses or there’s a coach service. For most people, the effective ‘range’ is three to five miles for general errands, maybe ten miles if you’re going somewhere and staying there, and if you’ve got access to good horses, fifty miles is a day’s journey, more or less. Oh, and you’re getting water from a well – yours if you’re lucky, otherwise it’s by bucket from a communal well, and the quality can be pretty iffy since there’s no sewage system either. A bath means heating water bucket by bucket and pouring it into a tub as it boils. By the time you’ve filled the tub what you’ve got is – hopefully – warm water. If you’re in a large family, everyone uses the tub water and the poor sod who goes last gets cold, dirty water to wash in.

Now get rid of mass-produced furniture and whatnot. Your dishes are probably wood, because for those all you have to do is cut down a tree and make it yourself. Nails are expensive because a blacksmith has to make them, individually. The old joke about granddad’s axe isn’t a joke any more – everything you own gets used, re-used and repaired endlessly. Your roof is probably shingle or thatch because you can do that yourself with local material, and you have to fix it constantly. Furniture-wise, you’ve got maybe a bed a table, and some stools or benches. Unless you’re wealthy – which usually means you own a lot of land – you made it all yourself, or someone in your family did. If you’re doing well, you’ve got some chickens and pigs, maybe even some cows or sheep. You don’t usually see money at all: instead, you barter with whatever you have surplus or your skills. Money is for the wealthy. Even your taxes get paid in kind rather than in money. That’s life for most people.

If you’re one of the relative few who lives in the (rather small by our standards) cities, you probably still keep chickens and possibly pigs, and you might have a small garden that keeps you in vegetables. For flour, honey and such, you go to the markets. Also for cloth, since you haven’t got space to grow flax or hemp or raise sheep. Cotton is rare and expensive because it’s a sub-tropical crop and needs a lot of intensive labor. Mostly what you buy is some version of linen or hemp cloth or wool. There is no such thing as ready-made. You or your family make it yourself. You probably have two sets of clothing: one for everyday, and one for Sunday. Washing your clothes means dunking them in boiling water and beating the dirt out of them – soap hasn’t been invented yet.

Trade means non-perishable goods – high quality fabrics, metals, gemstones, wood, dyes, spices (which are typically dried and will keep for a long time unless they get wet), lace (hand made by skilled artisans), and such. It’s all expensive – your family might own one lace collar, which the lady of the house wears to church on Sundays and treats with extreme care. If you’re a trader, chances are you live on the edge because travel any distance is dangerous and you could lose a fortune if your goods are stolen or the ship sinks. You probably specialize in one type of trade because of the specialized knowledge you need for it. If you’re a skilled artisan, you’re selling mostly to the relatively few wealthy people, or to traders, and you’re probably fairly well off yourself (unless you’re a blacksmith, in which case how wealthy you are depends a lot on where you’re working and how specialized you are – a really good swordsmith or armorer makes a lot more than a village smith). Jobs as we understand them don’t exist: most people are basically subsistence farmers or managing a little above that. People who are ’employed’ are generally servants or slaves who live in their master’s homes, or they’re apprenticed to a merchant or artisan and learning their trade. There were a few ‘open’ trades – keeping an inn or tavern (which generally was done as an extra by someone who was a bit better off than his neighbors), prostitution, and hired muscle of all flavors. One of the things that kept this structure relatively static was a variety of laws that banned moving above the class you were born to.

All of this added up to a finely tuned economy that mostly excluded the majority of people. Farms and villages had their own micro-economies based on barter, with occasional luxuries like blankets being brought in by traveling peddlers and usually bartered. National economies relied heavily on how much precious metal could be mined or traded for, and on taxing trade (other taxes generally got paid in kind). Nations that were foolish enough to debase their coinage with base metals suffered inflation and lost trade. Standing armies were rare. More typically, a monarch had a small personal guard, and raised an army from the populace with promises of loot and easy victory. They only did this when they needed to – or thought they could win quickly or cheaply – because once they took people away from their normal livelihood they had to pay them. A long war could cripple a country’s finances.

I’m not touching what magic does to this kind of system, because it depends on what kind of magic and what it can do. Similarly, I’m not getting specific anywhere – but pretty much all pre-Industrial cultures fit this general model, although late pre-Industrial you start having factory production and hugely uneven changes in social standing, wealth, and customs (which can and often did destabilize things). The assorted ‘Daily Life in…’ books offer a decent thumbnail guide to get started with. After that, I’d recommend good translations of material from, and preferably about, the period your setting is most like. Archaeological reproductions help too, as do re-enactor materials. The basic idea with this is to get the general feel of how things worked, dig out enough specifics that you can include the corroborating details (things like peeing in a bucket for your launderer tend to be more effective for Heinleining than things like the exotic carpet in Lord Sonso’s manor because they illustrate the differences in everyday life).

Oh, and if you want a really good insight into war, politics (and underlying it, economics) read Machiavelli. Start with The Prince, then the Discourses to get perspectives on absolute vs republican rule in ancient and medieval times, then move to the Art of War. For double bonus points, start estimating how familiar your favorite authors are with Machiavelli. Heck, for modern war all you really need to do with Machiavelli is update the weaponry.

>These Boots Are Made For Kicking

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So you want to write short stories. Or you don’t. Couldn’t care less. It is my considered opinion – and as everyone here knows I am a moderate and ponderous sort of person, mild-mannered and calm – that all of you need to write a lot more short stories, so you can submit it and get over this namby pamby fear of submitting your work. Because I can’t be having with that and I don’t want to call y’all sissies. (Even if you are.)
What I most often hear is “But I don’t like writing short stories.” Or perhaps “I’m a natural novelist.” Or yet “I don’t have short story ideas!”
The fact I normally hear these pronounced in the tone my kids used for “but I want a cookie” normally means I roll my eyes and go hide somewhere with a book. But leaving aside my excellent parenting skills, my general answer to these is “cry me a river” for the first two and “You can learn” to the last. I too am a natural novelist, I don’t generally like writing short stories, and heaven knows I don’t even have SINGLE NOVEL ideas, but more like a six book series.
You see, there are reasons to learn short stories – beyond the fact that you need desensitizing. Once you’ve made it and you’re a big name (shut up. The alternative is I keep kicking you. ALL of you will become major names by default) people will ask you for short stories and short stories are your cheapest means of self promotion. Write short stories for as many anthos and mags as you can – chances are people will find them and then look for everything else you wrote. At least if you do a creditable job. So… about learning to do that job.
Ideas are the easy part. I have a friend who routinely tells me “I have this idea for a short story” – when in fact he doesn’t. What do I mean by that? His “idea” will be something like “What if squirrels discovered electricity?” That is not an idea. It is the rawest glimmering of what-if. And it’s certainly not a Short story idea. Maybe an essay.
Could it be a short story idea? Sure. Follow that life line. So, squirrels discover electricity. Do they discover how to create electricity or how to steal it from homeowners, with tiny wires so they can watch squirrel porn on their tiny laptops? Let’s say they steal it. We have Mary. She lives downtown and suddenly her energy bill skyrockets. The landlord/energy company doesn’t believe her. A quick investigation finds that squirrels have found some discarded computer parts, assembled them, and are stealing electricity to watch Nutkin does Norway. Mary solves the problem by teaching the squirrels to distribute their electricity theft. She perhaps furnishes them with bigger screens, or something. In return they do something else for her – perhaps fill one of the electricity company’s trucks full of nuts. Or take nude pictures of the landlord and paste them all over the neighborhood.
Now what you must resist is the impulse to figure out how this will affect university at large. Will Mary’s boyfriend who is a biologist want to study these newly sentient squirrels? Will the squirrels become partners with humans in space exploration? Will there eventually be a tiny twitch of the tail for squirreldom, a giant step for the species of Earth? No. Don’t go there. Drop it. I mean you, Chris. You don’t know where it’s been, and besides you’re borrowing trouble. Short stories by definition take a smaller slice of the pie, usually concentrated on one person’s problem and its more or less reasonable solution. Yes, there are a few short stories with a cast of thousands and dancing elephants, but they’re rare, far between and require consummate skill.
I will confess part of this is weighing “what is a short story idea” and part of it is habit and practice – like everything else.
So, grab a couple of short story anthos (the Greenberg themed anthos are actually pretty good for this) and read a couple of short stories, it might help.
In any case, shoot me a few ideas in the comments. I’ll weigh in, as will the bunch that hangs out here, and we’ll discuss whether they’re short story ideas or not. If it makes you feel better shoot ideas you never plan to use, just so we can argue if they’re short story ideas of not. Just post them, we’ll discuss them, and your understanding will improve. (Grasshopper!) Of course, you might also want to tell me how insane my squirrel idea is. 😉 Or your alternate ideas for Squirrels Discover Electricity. (Ah, like any of you is as brilliant as I am. Whole cities are powered by my shining intellect. In fact squirrels would probably steal me… er… um… WHAT is in those cold meds?)
I know you have questions: So, you have this idea, but is it YOUR idea to write? What is a satisfying end for a a short story, versus a satisfying end for a novel? And where the heck do you find all these ideas, anyway? Will you give me the address in Kansas where they send you ideas if you send them a SASE?
All this and more will be answered when you tune in to the next episode of “Boots, Stories and tired writers!”

>Writing back cover Blurbs. Oh my!

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My new editor at Solaris, asked me to write a 100 -150 word blurb for each book of the King Rolen’s Kin (KRK) trilogy. Since these books are 120K, 130K and 150K, reducing them to bite sized blurbs seemed insurmountable.

Let’s see, I had to retain enough of the feel of the story to get that across. I had to encapsulate the important conflicts of the plot, without revealing too much. And I had to do all this while making it sound interesting and enticing. Easy … sure.

In the past, I’ve found it easier to write a blurb for a book I haven’t written, than for one already completed, when I’m familiar with all the subtle twists and turns. Rather than tear my hair out, I went back to my KRK file and pulled out my Chapter Outlines which contain scene breakdowns.

When I’m writing an intricate plot that stretches over 1,500 pages and three kingdoms with parallel time lines, I keep notes for myself on what happens in each scene. I’ve learnt from experience there are times when I wake in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Oh no, I forgot to mention that X was wearing his lion tooth trophy necklace early in book two.’ Then I have to go back and find the right scene and the right place to mention this in passing. If I haven’t done a scene breakdown I spend ages looking for the right spot. So I have this handy tool that reduces each book to the important events in each scene. But these documents are up to 10 pages long. At least I was one step closer to writing a 100 word blurb.

Still not there though. So I resorted to the old faithful:-

Who is the story about?
What do they want?
Why can’t the achieve this?
How do they overcome it?

Only I avoided the last line because these were blurbs to tease the readers. After three days of intensive writing, editing, putting aside for a couple of hours, going back to it. I had the blurbs written. Under 400 words in 3 days — Wow!

After all that I had to wonder, do the reading public pay much attention to blurbs? Do you buy a book on the strength of the back cover blurb?

>Mad Genius Monday

>Since Dave is being hammered by all the things that need to be done following his mother’s passing, he will not be posting today.

Instead, the Mad Geniuses have opened the lab. Step carefully, mind the strange bubbling stuff over there (no, don’t drink it!) and have fun. We take no responsibility for any strange ideas you might pick up.

No politics (unless it’s fictional political systems), religion (ditto), or insults, please.

If you’ve got a work in progress, perhaps you might like to see what the Mad Geniuses think of it. Or perhaps you just want to hold forth in iambic pentameter about the weirdness of the world. Ladies, gentlemen, and others, you have the floor. Please put it back when you’ve finished with it.

>It’s Magic!

>Thursday, Kate talked about world building and some of the issues it raises in science fiction and fantasy. Her post started me thinking about a question raised in my local critique group this past weekend. Specifically, a couple of the new writers in our group wanted to know how you make magic a part of your world and what I meant when I said it had to “follow the rules”.

We’ve all read books where everything is going along according to the rules set out by the author and then BAM the main character – or the bad guy – does something not only unexpected but distinctly against the rules as they’ve been established and the book goes flying across the room. Maybe your main character has no magic and then, just in the nick of time, he does and he manages to save the day – this usually happens with no foreshadowing that his powers are growing, etc. Just a form of deus ex machina in the shape of magic to solve a plot point the author couldn’t or wouldn’t take the time to solve by following the rules.

So, what are the rules, you ask? I wish I could tell you there is this magical little rule book that sets it all down for you. But there’s not. The one rule I try to abide by is that it must follow the rules of your world, ie your worldbuilding. To do so, I ask myself the following questions:

  • What is magic in my world? This seems simple enough, but think about it. There are still places in our world where technology seems like magic. So, do inventions such as steam-powered engines or electrical lights and telephone-like communications count as magic? Or is it more along the line of potions and rituals and spells? Maybe it’s something else. It is up to you to decide.
  • Where does magic come from? Simply put, are your characters born with magic, do they learn it or is it a “gift” from the gods?
  • Who can perform magic in my world? Basically, does everyone have it or only some of the people.
  • If only some of the people in your world have magic, how do those with magic look at those without it and vice versa?
  • If you have a hybrid system of “natural” or god-given magic and “learned” magic, how do the practitioners of each view the others? Is there a hierarchical system involved?
  • How does the magic manifest itself, ie what magical powers exist in your world? Remember, these powers have to fit the rules of your world, so you have to take into account religion, economic and social rules as well. Depending on the storyline, you also have to look at military and technological factors.
  • What does it cost your characters to use magic? Magic has to cost the user in some form. In other words, there is a price to pay for it. Magic is energy – yes, there are a multitude of books out there where magic is a divine gift with no cost to use for the Hero. However, ask yourself if that really is no cost. There usually is, even if it isn’t in the form of personal energy/health. The cost is in becoming a martyr or forever questing in the service of the god involved. Think about it this way — how likely is it you can ride a horse at a gallop for hours on end without stopping? You can’t without killing the horse. So if there is a cost for magic, you have to show it, whether it is by having your mage (or whatever you call him) be ravenously hungry or exhausted. It can even be something as simple as, to borrow from Stephen King, if you use your abilities too long and too frequently, you have nosebleeds and worse.
  • So, how does the user power the magic?
  • If by ritual, what is that ritual?
  • Finally, and in many ways the most important, how does magic fit into your world? I asked earlier if everyone in your world has magic or just some of your characters. There is a corollary to that. If not everyone in your world has magic, do they know magic exists? If they do, what are their feelings about magic, notwithstanding what they think about the magic users.

There are any number of other questions that can be asked during the course of worldbuilding when using magic as part of your plot. There is, however, one rule that must be kept in mind — well, two actually because you always need to remember the KISS rule (unless part of the plot is making the spells so intricate that your main character, sap that he is, can’t remember all of them and is always screwing up) – keep to the rules you set. Don’t have a firestarter suddenly able to call the wind to fan the flames of the fire he just started or rain to put it out. At least not if you haven’t laid the groundwork for it all along the lines.

Here are a few links with more information on magic in worldbuilding:
http://querytracker.blogspot.com/2009/09/fantasy-world-building-magical-rules.html
http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions-magic-and-magicians/
http://www.squidoo.com/fantasyworldbuilding
http://www.web-writer.net/fantasy/

So, what questions do you ask yourself when you are writing magic? What pitfalls do you see and try to avoid?

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Some types of literary genre are inalienably linked with a culture or nationality. For example, the ‘western’ is an art form always set in the American west. There is no absolute reason why this should be so. Westerns could be set on the frontier of any expanding empire be it Rome, Russia or Britain, but they never are. Similarly, one associates serial killer stories with the modern United States notwithstanding that the media-serial killer was invented in London. Gangster stories are another American literary genre. Again, there is no particular reason for this. The American mafia never got a hold in London because there was no opening. London has always had its own organised crime.

But there is one literary form that is indisputably English dominated and that is the murder mystery story. The bestselling novelist of all time is Agatha Christie. Only Shakespeare has sold better and I am not sure we should class him as a novelist. Christie did not invent the genre; she is simply the most famous exponent.

An English murder mystery is quite different from a crime story or a police procedural. Murder is committed on some upper class or generally respectable member of society for reasons that are not immediately apparent. There are always plenty of suspects but those that have the motive do not have the opportunity and visa versa. More murders follow. Eccentricity spirals through the story like a bright copper wire. The victim and suspects are eccentric and the detective is, if anything, weirder. Midsummer murders, the latest successful TV murder mystery broke the mould slightly by having a perfectly normal family man as the detective. That did not last, however. Barnaby’s wife and daughter take up increasingly eccentric activities and recently it transpired that Barnaby was an MI6 agent. Murder mysteries are solved by ‘the little grey cells’ not by car chases, shoot outs, or patient police work.

So why is this genre so associated with England? Is it just because of Christie or is there something deeper going on? To put it another way, are there real life murder mysteries in England? Well take a look at these.

There is a village in Herts, one of the Home Counties, called Furneux Pelham (pronounced Furnix) of 250 residents. One morning in 2004, an NHS carer found their patient, Colonel Workman (rtd from the Oxforshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry), dead of a shotgun blast on his doorstep. The Liberal Peer, Dame Shirley Williams is a neighbour. The Colonel has lived there for 40 years, alone since his wife died the previous year. He had no enemies and was not robbed or professionally assassinated. Suspicion fell on the Puckeridge Hunt because they have shotguns but, then, so does everyone in this area.

A 999 call was received that morning alerting the police to an incident in Furneax Pelham from a phone box in the nearby village of Braughing, referring to the Colonel’s cottage by its old village name of 24 years previously. A year later a prisoner in Parkhurst alerted the baffled police to the Colonel’s secret life as an active homosexual in London gay clubs in the 50s and 60s. As far as I know neither the murderer nor the caller has ever been traced despite police investigations in America, Africa and the Med. The problem was that neither Miss Marple nor any of her relatives lived in the village.

Or how about the English civil servant with gambling debts who cancelled his wife’s car insurance forcing her to cycle everywhere then trying to run her down in a stolen sandwich van? Or the sex-mad spiritualist minister who murdered his wife, who was a TV makeup artist, and left her body by the track of the steam railway which he helped run. Or how about the farmer who tried to kill the postmistress, his wife, with a tractor so he could collect on her life insurance and run off with the village pub barmaid? Then there’s the royal dentist who murdered his wife and his lover’s husband.

There really is an English murder.

>Our Deepest Sympathies

>go out to our own Dave Freer and his family. Dave’s mum passed away earlier today. Here’s what Dave had to say on Twitter:

Out bright candle. My mother has died. Posts may be erratic and bleak. She wa a few days short of 93, had lived a life worth living.

Dave, our thoughts and prayers are with all of you. Lots of virtual hugs,
Your fellow Mad Genius Club cohorts

>Tales of the Old Country

>I was wandering around town last week, and as often happens, my feet took me down Charlotte St to one of my favourite haunts, Gilhooleys pub. As I relaxed at the bar, preparing myself to meditate over a pint of Guinness, I suddenly recognized Duncan, a distant cousin of mine from the old country. Usually laconic, old Dunc looked even more down than usual.

‘Hey Duncan, why so somber?’

‘Did you not hear?’ He shook his head sadly and slumped down even further, his face sinking toward the froth on his untouched beer. ‘Old Maggie.’

He meant Sister Margaret, known as the ‘Mother Teresa of the Irish West’

‘Surely not?’ I prompted.

‘I was there,’ he said. He shook himself a bit. Then taking a long pull on the black stuff, he sat up straighter on his stool.

‘There she was – lying back on the pillows. Her face so pale. . . yet aglow like. There was myself, a young little nun from the convent, Bessie, and old Father O’Hennessy. Nothing to do but just hold the vigil.’ He paused. ‘How many times can ye’ say the Rosary? God, forgive me,’ said Duncan, crossing himself.

I wasn’t sure what to say. Duncan is little older than me, and always held me in a sort of spell with his reserved gravity. I sat and waited, and eventually the story unfolded, my eyes on the pint and bar, but my mind lost in Duncan’s voice, the memory of the peat smoke, and the warm shuttered rooms of my childhood. I was there, in that room with Duncan.

‘Will you not take some water?’ asked Father O’Hennessy.

Maggie shook her head, making a sound deep in her throat that might have been anything.

‘Perhaps some milk?’

‘I’ll try,’ croaked Maggie weakly.

Father O’Hennessy nodded his head at Bessie, who slipped out of the room, returning a moment later with a large glass of creamy milk.

Bessie stepped up to the bed and held the glass to Maggie’s lips. Maggie choked and spluttered, the milk spraying out onto the cover. Maggie shook her head, and Bessie withdrew the glass. I could see poor little Bessie’s eyes tear as she mopped up the spill.

Eventually Bessie came back over to myself and Father O’Hennessy in the corner near the fire.

‘It’s no good, Father,’ said Bessie.

Father O’Hennessy looked down at the floor, then up suddenly. He considered for a moment, then his eyes lifted to the ceiling. ‘May the Lord forgive me.’ He turned his back on Maggie and slipped a silver flask from his coat pocket, pouring a good slug of Jameson’s Whiskey in with the milk. ‘Try that, girl.’

Bessie went back the bed. At the first touch of the glass to Old Maggie’s lips, her eyes lit up. She pushed herself back up into a sitting position, and gulped down the rest of the drink.

A little colour came back into her cheeks then, but there was something – the unearthly clarity of her eyes or the pallor of her skin – that alerted us.

‘Get the others, Bessie. Lively now,’ said Father O’Hennessy. It would not be long.

Soon the room was crowded with clergy, most of them the nuns that Old Maggie had led for more than a quarter of a century.

For a long moment Maggie looked at the them, then she tried to push herself up higher. This was it. The last words of this wonderful woman.

‘Help her up, Bessie.’

Maggie’s face was rapt as she drew a breath.

‘Whatever you do – don’t sell that cow!’